December 19, 2013

Our View: Federal budget’s passage promises more pragmatic politics

There was a lot left out of the bipartisan deal, but there is enough in it to be encouraged.

We don’t usually praise people for doing their jobs, but with Congress ready to pass its first budget since 2010, we can relax our policy. In this case, just doing their jobs should be considered an achievement.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, led the bipartisan effort to pass the nation's first budget since 2010.

The Associated Press

The budget deal that appears to be headed to President Obama’s desk might seem like a poor candidate for praise. It is more than just flawed – it is faulty.

It does nothing to help the long-term unemployed still struggling to recover from the recession, and leaves every single tax loophole in place for the wealthiest Americans, who have more than recovered. Fees on travelers, increases in federal workers’ pension contributions and cuts to military retirement benefits are a poor way to build a stronger middle class.

But the $85 billion “mini-budget” looks a lot better when you consider what it prevents. Most importantly, it means there will not be another government shutdown or a crisis over an impending shutdown until at least 2015.

It also heads off some of the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that have interfered with the delivery of federal services and the national defense. The deal replaces about a third of the scheduled cuts over the next two years.

And it clears up some of the uncertainty that comes to those who deal with the federal government. When there is no budget, Congress keeps things running a few months at a time with continuing resolutions. Now businesses, state governments and other entities will know that funding is committed to certain programs for at least two years, enabling longer-term planning.

Seeing Democrats and Republicans come together to avert a crisis and pass a budget should give consumers some confidence. This is the first budget to be passed by a divided government since 1986, and it passed with strong bipartisan support.

We hope this will set a precedent and stop the series of political ultimatums like the ones leading to the government shutdown that resulted in the furlough of 800,000 federal employees in October.

For this round of negotiations, Republican leaders were willing to tune out talk radio loud-mouths and extreme special interest groups, suggesting that we may see more pragmatic politics in the future.

On this front, we are optimistic, but far from confident.

Lead House Republican negotiator Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has signaled that his party is ready to create a crisis when raising the debt limit comes back up for a vote in February. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit,” Ryan said in a Fox News interview. “We are going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

This sounds a lot like Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who, at the height of the shutdown in October, declared, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We are going to get something out of this, and I don’t even know what that is.”

If Ryan and the Republicans are going to threaten to push the nation toward its first-ever default to gain political advantage, it will be another year of dysfunction in Washington.

But a debt ceiling fight, if there is one, is a subject for the new year. So is extending benefits for long-term unemployed workers, closing tax loopholes and passing a farm bill that protects nutrition programs for needy families.

For now, we can appreciate that this Congress was at least able to do its job and pass a bipartisan budget. It may be too early to declare victory, said Maine Sen. Angus King, but it’s a good time to “declare progress.”

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